Image: Buying gas
Jim Young  /  Reuters
Gas station owner Osama Elkhawad holds on to money given to him by a customer to prepay for fuel at his station in Arlington, Va., earlier this month.
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updated 7/2/2008 12:13:54 PM ET 2008-07-02T16:13:54

Over the last few summers, gas costs have become an unnerving new concern for Americans planning vacations, with prices soaring well over $3 a gallon — adding yet another burden to the often already considerable cost of traveling. Unfortunately, this summer isn't going to be any easier on travelers' wallets; Gas prices across the nation have surpassed $4 a gallon, and they show no signs of falling. The fact is, the days of the $2 and under gallon of gas are almost certainly over — but we've managed to come up with a few ways to save at the pump.

Simple stuff
1. Buy gas the day before you travel. You already know where the best gas deals are near your house or office, so you might as well purchase the first tank of your trip at a price you know and can control.

2. Empty out your ride. Leaving the 50-pound bag of dog food, the sack of grass seed, the immovable box of magazines headed for recycling, and more in your car on long trips adds weight to your car and gobbles up fuel at a rate of 1-2 percent per 100 pounds. Lighten your load before traveling to save money.

On the highways
3. Choose an exit with several gas stations. You can usually tell these from the amenity signs on the highway leading up to the exit — the ones that list several fast food joints, local diners, hotels and gas stations. If the sign lists two or more stations, you will often benefit from the simple fact that there is competition for your business.

Upon exiting, you'll typically see a sign reading:

Brand A — 0.1 mi ——>

Brand B — 0.1 mi <——

Brand C — 0.8 mi ——>

In this case, you may want to choose the station that is furthest from the exit ramp.

Typically, Brand C will have the lowest prices, simply due to the inability to gouge outsiders looking for a quick off-and-on fill-up (the locals often use this station).

Two things happen. First, it's cheaper. Second, it is often less crowded. The extra mile's drive will cost you a few cents, but you can sometimes recover that in the first few gallons, and ultimately save quite a bit if you are running on empty and fill your tank.

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4. Use "official" rest stops — like those named after founding fathers, football coaches, nurses, mythical figures and others surely lost to memory were it not for Wikipedia and New Jersey Turnpike rest areas. (Quick — who is Joyce Kilmer? Anyone? Anyone?) Oddly enough, these official rest stops tend to have fairly competitive prices; perhaps it would be unseemly for a station enjoying the considerable benefits of a government highway contract to soak us with high gas prices while trapped on the costly side of toll booths.

When renting a car
Anyone who has filled the tank of their rental car at the station just outside the cluster of car rental companies knows that you can get truly soaked by waiting until the last minute. These folks know they are your Last Chance Texaco, and price-gouge accordingly. There are a couple of ways to win this game.

5. Your most reliable tactic is to check nearby gas prices on your way out of the airport/car rental zone just after you pick up the car — this is when you should be thinking about saving money, not when you are returning the car and are under time pressure to make a flight. Then, when returning the car, consider purchasing your gas some distance from the rental return counter.

6. You can even pick the exact station at which you will purchase your gas on the way back in. Most rental companies require only that you fill the tank within 10 miles of the return lot; you will typically find much cheaper gas at this distance, out where real people buy gas for daily life. If you do this, get a receipt and take it with you to the counter as proof of purchase.

7. Even before getting in the car — in fact even before booking the rental — you may want to make the fuel efficiency of your chosen vehicle a priority. You can research fuel efficiency by car class, model, year and more at fueleconomy.gov. The dollar amounts aren't nothing — the site mentions that "the difference between a car that gets 20 mpg and one that gets 30 mpg amounts to $550 per year (assuming 15,000 miles of driving annually and a fuel cost of $2.20)." And we all know that the $2.20 gallon of gas ain't likely coming back!

Driving around
8. There are a gazillion ways to keep fuel consumption down when driving; here are just a few: Gas Prices Got You Down?

9. A recent study found that, when searching for parking spaces, people lose the most time and burn up the most fuel by trying too hard to get too close to the entrance of the store, restaurant or hotel they are visiting. Not only that, they found that the harder you tried to park up close, the longer you waited overall.

The results found that:

People who drove to the first obviously available spot and walked, no matter how far from the entrance, tended to get to the entrance first and burn the least fuel.

People who drove around looking for the best spot, then parked when they found one, tended to get to the entrance next, and burned more fuel.

People who waited to see someone who was about to pull out of their spot, then sat and waited for them to pull out and pulled into the spot, tended to get to the entrance last, and burned the most fuel.

So park a little further away and save yourself time, burn less fuel and burn more calories.

I hope these tips help you beat the heat this summer without wilting your wallet.

Video: Gas-saving tips

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